Best Shots Review: BERSERKER UNBOUND #1 'Very Much a Double-Edged Sword'

Berserker Unbound #1
Credit: Mike Deodato Jr./Frank Martin/Steve Wands (Dark Horse Comics)
Credit: Mike Deodato Jr./Frank Martin/Steve Wands (Dark Horse Comics)

Berserker Unbound #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Mike Deodato, Jr. and Frank Martin
Lettering by Steve Wands
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Rama Rating: 5 out of 10

Jeff Lemire and Mike Deodato Jr’s newest creator-owned work gets a burly, but slight debut in Berserker Unbound #1. Meet The Mongrel King. He’s big. He’s bad. He’s seemingly ripped straight from the pages of Robert E. Howard. But while the whole hook of the series is seeing this anachronism dropped into the everyday world, something Jeff Lemire has proven quite good at before, this debut issue certainly takes its sweet time getting there. Instead it is much more focused on the King’s trope-filled origins, complete with a Wolverine-like need for constant battle and a whole family stuffed into a sword-and-sorcery-themed refrigerator by the issue’s mid-point.

Credit: Mike Deodato Jr./Frank Martin/Steve Wands (Dark Horse Comics)

While this isn’t the greatest tactic for the opening narratively, visually Berserker Unbound is a marvel thanks to the keen working dynamic between Mike Deodato, Jr. and Frank Martin. Leaning whole hog into the bloody, dusty, and often densely violent look of the genre, Deodato and Martin deliver more than a few show stopping double-page splashes of the King in action. But the impressive nature of the visuals don’t just pertain to the violence. Deodato also does some fun work with his panel layouts, breaking up certain sequences into segmented, almost puzzle-like layouts. The very picture of a mixed bag, Berserker Unbound might be for Lemire completists only.

Anyone familiar with the sword-and-sorcery genre will have a foothold in the world of Berserker Unbound. We open on the Mongrel King, returning home from another conquest. Though some wordy narration, the King details past exploits and his prowess in battle. These captions displays Lemire’s flair for language as he dangles story hooks like 'the Smoke Giants' and 'The Elder Serpent' in front of us. But from there, things get a bit stock. As you could probably guess, the King returns home to find his home ruined and family killed, fueling his rage, leading to a huge Frank Miller-esque battle. This leaves him weak for the transport into “our” world, via a Nightmare Before Christmas-like rune cave.

Credit: Mike Deodato Jr./Frank Martin/Steve Wands (Dark Horse Comics)

But it’s such a bummer we never get to see that, beyond the issue’s scant final pages. While the opening is certainly bloody and kinetic, I can’t help but think the more interesting story is waiting for us in #2. I will never be disappointed at an excuse for Mike Deodato Jr. and Frank Martin to cut loose, but I expected more from Lemire. Part of me thinks this could have been another Black Hammer, which would have at least given it another jolt of narrative energy. But reading Jeff Lemire do a half-hearted Howard story just in service of the more interesting story in the follow-up is pretty disappointing.

But what is not disappointing is the artwork of Mike Deodato Jr. and Frank Martin. Though we have gotten some barbarian-inspired fun from this pair over at Marvel lately with Savage Avengers, this opening issue is unconstrained from superheroic rules and, arguably, morality. After the mournful, cinematic opening, the team start the weapons flying, facing the King against a horde of enemies led by a wizard that looks ready made for your Dungeons & Dragons table.

Credit: Mike Deodato Jr./Frank Martin/Steve Wands (Dark Horse Comics)

I mentioned Frank Miller earlier, and I can’t stress how apt the comparison is. Literally piling bodies against the King, recalling works like Ronin and 300, and then later detailing how he uses them as a defensive position, Deodato and Martin go full-tilt crazy as we see the “Blade of the Berserker” in all its gory glory. Heads rolls, limbs are hacked, and blood flows throughout Deodato’s richly detailed pencils and Martin’s grimy, gritty colors. But they do us one better, adding a sort of David Fincher-esque theatricality to the opening. Throughout the splash pages, Deodato and Martin line the sequences main above sequences with grim portrait shots of specific details of the fights. Later on when the King reaches the Rune Cave, they do the same thing, but this time the segment the panels further apart, giving a sort of nightmarish dream logic to the transition. It is really impressive stuff.

Berserker Unbound #1 is very much a double-edged sword. The good news is it looks tremendous. But if you’ve come in expecting the Barbarian-out-of-water story the cover promises, better luck next month. Let’s pray to Crom that it’s worth the wait.

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